United Way Toronto & York Region’s GenNext® hosted the Poverty Simulator at Vaughan City Hall on November 22, 2017 to attempt to simulate the lifestyle of low-income families in York Region. The goal of this simulation was to help the citizens of York Region understand the sacrifices the homeless must make just to have the basic necessities of life such as medicine and food.

In this simulation, GenNext® demonstrated that the homeless are not only the individuals who live on the street. In fact, York Region’s definition of homelessness stretches far beyond our stereotypical idea of a homeless individual.

The individuals whom we assume represent the entirety of the homeless community, actually represent only 20% of the spectrum; the remaining 80% are the individuals are staying in government housing or are couch surfing while balancing their low income. Most individuals who are experiencing homelessness are nothing like what we think a traditional homeless individual looks like. In fact, some individuals are highly educated, friendly and hardworking but are experiencing homelessness due to a multitude of reasons.

Limited choices make it seem that someone chose to be homeless. Instead factors such as relationship breakdowns, mental stability and the inability to find affordable housing in York Region are all possible factors as to why someone may be homeless.

The GenNext® Poverty Simulator perfectly reflected this type of low-income lifestyle by providing a diverse character list with individuals who are suffering financially due to factors beyond their control.

At this event I was put into a group with three other strangers who I would call my family for the next hour. We were each assigned a role within the family – I was to portray the 57 year old mother in-law with partial paralysis. This condition prevented me from getting a job but allowed my family to receive a government compensation cheque of $330 every week. My son in the simulator worked full time making only $8.80/hr, my daughter-in-law was currently unemployed and desperately searching for a job and my granddaughter attended high school every day. Together we worked tirelessly in a desperate attempt to make ends meet before the end of the month.

This simulator required our family to obtain transport passes in order to travel to places such as the bank, work and social services. Very quickly we realized that these bus passes played a huge role in our lives; however, due to our restricted supply and financial issues, we were limited in how many things we are able to get done in one day. On some occasions, I was unable to cash my cheque at the bank because I had to use my final bus pass to buy more bus passes. It was especially hard to be proactive and ration these passes as life was going at one hundred miles per hour while every family member was involved in their own lives.

Just like in real life the simulator included social services which were designed to give players some extra cash or transport passes when needed. However, to access such services it required one of our family members to take a day off work. With an already extremely low income to support our entire family, even one day off work was detrimental to our financial stability. We found it very difficult to find government assistance due to our limited income and the pressures of our payments.

York Region is taking steps to prevent this issue even before it even happens. It is an unrealistic goal is to say that all homelessness will be eradicated with new social and economic programs. However, is more realistic and effective to assist those already homeless and as well to design programs to detect and prevent future homelessness. York Region is creating programs to detect early signs of individuals at a risk of becoming homeless and addressing the issue before they must resort to that lifestyle. Earlier this year, CEO Wayne Emmerson explained that York Region is taking additional steps in assisting individuals who are at risk of becoming homeless including a better funding of the housing stability program which includes financial assistance, after care and counseling for more than 4,000 individuals at risk of becoming homeless.

There was one scenario during the simulation that required my family to make a consequential decision. After we had just received our eviction notice we were informed by the local police officer that our daughter was detained in jail with a $40 bail. With only enough money to pay our rent to avoid complete eviction, my family was forced to make an unsettling choice between our daughters bail and our house.

At the end of the simulation the GenNext® hosts asked players to speak about their own personal experience with the simulation. One participant explained how the character she was portraying was a 23 year old immigrant from Italy. Although she was able to comprehend what the bank tellers and pawn shop owners were saying to her, she found it unsettling to know that her character would not have this advantage.

According to an Analysis of Human Services by York University, an unsettling 72% of all immigrants who immigrate to York Region are from countries whose first languages are not English or French. This is not only just a huge disadvantage but also a detrimental factor when applying for a job or understanding financial terms. Immigrants who do not meet Canadian communication standards will most likely work lower-skilled occupations and get paid barely enough to cover their housing costs in York Region.

The simulator shed light on what the homeless community of York Region must sacrifice in order to survive. It is saddening to know that the dilemmas and scenarios I had experienced in the simulation are real life problems that a homeless individual goes through every day. In order for our community to make a real difference in the ongoing issue of homelessness in York Region, we must first understand their lifestyle. The GenNext® Poverty Simulation was a great step in an attempt to inform the citizens of York Region the struggles of the fellow homeless in our community.